All journalists, from their first day in class or on the job, are taught a sacrosanct principle that’s spoken of in reverential tones and repeated as if part of a monastic ritual: objectivity.
It’s almost as if working journalists must become the Fair Witness of science fiction author Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land.” In the futuristic novel, a Fair Witness is “rigorously trained to observe, remember, and report without prejudice, distortion, lapses in memory, or personal involvement.” So strict are their professional rules that they may only comment on what they have observed, and make no extrapolations or assumptions until they have seen, heard or felt something themselves.
This rigor sounds exactly like what is demanded of journalists under the classic definition of objectivity, the ideal toward which many reporters strive on a daily basis. With the profusion of fake news, propaganda and opinion masquerading as truth in the digital arena, the need for journalists who can discern fact from fiction would appear to make objectivity all the more essential now.
However, the fair witness and the concept of perfect objectivity share another commonality: They’re both fiction.
Heresy? No. I argue that we simply cannot be objective. Every one of us, no matter how hard we try, comes to every situation with our own set of individual experiences and beliefs, all of which shape the act of observation.
It is the journalism corollary to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, established by German physicist Werner Heisenberg, it states that it is impossible to measure both the position and momentum of a sub-atomic particle with absolute precision. “Either way, your observation of either position or momentum will be inaccurate and, more important, the act of observation affects the particle being observed,” explains article in the Guardian.
Let me emphasize the part of Heisenberg’s principle that I believe is relevant to journalism and specifically reporting: the act of observation actually affects how a subject is observed and perceived.
Why? This happens simply because each of us observes situations through our own unique lenses, which are developed by our experiences and polished by our beliefs and biases.
When I say biases, I do not imply that journalists come to a topic with preconceived notions, nor do I accuse them of having an actual slant, the type that would draw condemnation from politicians or disaffected members of the public. By biases, I mean a person’s natural set of predilections through which he or she views the world in the simplest, most comfortable or comforting way.
Then, there are structural biases that journalism as a profession imposes, which the Columbia Journalism Review’s Brent Cunningham describes in his July 2003 article: “Reporters are biased toward conflict because it is more interesting than stories without conflict; we are biased toward sticking with the pack because it is safe; we are biased toward event-driven coverage because it is easier; we are biased toward existing narratives because they are safe and easy.”
So, if we accept that those biases do exist, then we can agree that it is impossible to be completely objective about a topic and our approach to it.
Because as Michael Schudson argues, objectivity “is at once a moral ideal, a set of reporting and editing practices, and an observable pattern of news writing,” how can journalists get close to achieving the ideal, given the limitations imposed by their own humanity? Is the ideal worth maintaining?
If objectivity is sought to provide a stronger presentation of facts to help readers judge truth for themselves, then fidelity to facts, balance and impartiality matters. The question is how best to use those standards in everyday journalism by evolving our concept of objectivity.
Cunningham points out how objectivity, as classically conceived, can actually inhibit journalists by a) forcing them to rely on official sources too much, leaving them exposed to public relations spin and b) keeping their own expertise from being brought to the fore.
He cites the case of Louisville Courier-Journal reporter Jason Riley, whose editor asked him to attribute to a source a conclusion Riley had drawn after months of reporting. Riley’s expertise was unique – he had spent six months digging through the particular court files involved, so there may have been no greater expert on the matter than he was. Yet, because of the rules of objectivity, his editor refused to accept him as an authoritative source.
I ran into this challenge often as a journalist for Reuters News, where impartiality and freedom from bias are enshrined in the Reuters Trust Principles and overseen by a board of some of the world’s most “eminent people from the world of politics, diplomacy, journalism, public service and business.”
Make no mistake: I did and still do vigorously support and uphold those principles, as they give Reuters a unique power and competitive advantage over most news organizations: the most reluctant, dangerous or skeptical sources knew they would be treated fairly by Reuters because of its long-held reputation for impartiality.
That being said, my colleagues and I would often have to keep our unique expertise out of our stories because of the strictures of objectivity.
As the bureau chief in Sri Lanka, I routinely spoke to everyone that mattered in the country, just as any of my fellow bureau chiefs across the world did as part of their day-to-day work. So, my colleagues and I routinely had unique insights gleaned from countless conversations with diplomats, businesspeople and government leaders, and many of those same people sought us out for our perspectives and authoritative knowledge.
But when it came time to put that expertise into print, I rarely could find a source who knew what I knew and could say it on the record. So, instead of sharing that knowledge directly with readers in plain English, I’d have to present it within the limiting orthodoxy of news writing style and leave the conclusions between the lines for the adept reader to discover.
It was only when Reuters experimented with different formats, such as monthly political risk reports, that I could say exactly what I knew and believed. Readers were happy and no one complained of bias, precisely because Reuters had made it clear that what I was saying in that format was a forecast based on my expertise – not a news story subject to the ordinary expectation of objectivity and impartial recitation of facts.
In a digital news environment where we suffer from an abundance of news stories, including poorly sourced if not outright false ones, I argue that expertise and authority should be the new paradigm to replace strait-laced objectivity.
Fairness and fidelity to facts, two crucial underpinnings of the objectivity model, are inherent in expertise and authority. An expert has already dismissed those ideas which do not hold up to factual scrutiny, and that faithfulness to the provable in turn grants him or her authority. With that authority, a journalist can question any institution or set of facts within his or her area of expertise.
The best part of substituting expertise and authority for objectivity is that expertise and authority are self-governing and identify a person’s “bias” from the outset.
Whereas a reporter tied to the unreachable ideal of objectivity is constantly exposed to attacks by interested partisans, the expert-authority journalists are protected by their bodies of provable experience and can counter attacks on their integrity through their command of the facts. That’s the self-governing aspect of the expert-authority model: such journalists derive their power from accuracy and reputation, so they are well-motivated to stay above reproach.
This approach will require educating readers and bringing back the clear labeling of news, analysis and opinion that used to be provided on newspaper or magazine pages, but is all too often lost on the Internet. By defining the terms, journalism will be served by both removing the artificial impediments of an impossible ideal and entering into dialogue with readers with an up-front declaration of the author’s perspective. Readers will then know how to process what’s been written.
So, let’s leave Heisenberg and the Fair Witness in the realms of physics and science fiction. Here’s to the Fair Expert.
Bryson Hull is a Chicago-based communications consultant, writer and editor who serves a diverse client base. He spent a decade overseas with Reuters News and Bloomberg, working in nearly 20 countries across Africa, the Middle East and Asia. He has covered financial markets spanning foreign exchange to oil and gas, and conflicts from Somalia to Afghanistan.
Imagine wristwatch sensors that can detect perspiration and monitor pulse rates – not as part of an exercise regimen, but in a workplace setting. In 2014, an MIT professor used such technology to monitor 57 stock and bond traders in a simulated lab, measuring their ability to handle stress while trading millions of dollars on Wall Street. The results revealed that the top performers, including one trader who made more than $1 million in a couple of hours, were able to quickly handle and recover from volatility. On the other hand, the traders who didn’t perform as well, including one individual who lost close to $5 million, were not as elastic in the face of market volatility.
The value of this type of technology is obvious. Not only can investment companies view dashboards to see if their employees are panicking, which could lead to bad decisions, but they can also use wristwatch sensors to test job applicants’ ability to handle the stock market’s ups and downs.
Wall Street investment companies aren’t the only organizations that want to use behavioral analytics and other types of workplace monitoring to improve performance.
Consulting firm Deloitte recently partnered with Humanyze, a Boston-based startup, to provide employees in one of its offices with smart badges (worn on lanyards) that allow Deloitte to track employee movement and vocal activity; the company recently renovated the office to improve collaboration and wanted to find out if its efforts were successful.
Deloitte was able to determine that employees preferred to congregate in certain areas, and although they had petitioned for new treadmills in the gym, the exercise equipment was collecting a lot of dust. Participation in this experiment was voluntary.
Humanyze also allows companies to equip their smart badges with microphones. While actual conversations are not being recorded, the badges can determine how long employees talk, and conversely, how long they listen when others are talking.
When the badges were used at Bank of America, data revealed that high-performing teams consistently shared communication strategies, with similarities in their frequency of conversations, use of body language and tone of voice. One call center’s manager decided to change how the teams took coffee breaks. Instead of staggering the breaks, all members of a particular team took their breaks at the same time so they could socialize. This improved engagement levels and also increased productivity levels.
One software company used events known as “beer meets” to encourage better communication, but after using the badges, they discovered this was not an effective approach. Instead, installing longer tables in the lunchroom produced the desired effect.
Genome, a customizable software program designed by a company called Klick Health, can extract data from employees’ card keys to determine whether they take the elevator or the stairs. Klick put that information to use when it launched a stair-climbing competition to encourage its employees to be healthier. The card keys also allow everyone in the company to see when employees are in the building or not.
Using PC monitoring software, companies such as Veriato allow employers to track inactivity, emails, social media, documents, file access, search terms and keystrokes.
Other types of time-tracking and management software can be used to track productivity rates by monitoring the amount of time an employee spends on each project. Proponents of this software say it can help to identify underperforming employees and encourage workers to avoid distractions. Plus, the technology makes it easier to determine how much time should be allocated for various projects.
While these employee monitoring techniques appear to improve productivity and limit theft, what are the ethical issues with tracking a worker’s movements? Are companies infringing on their employees’ privacy?
Nichole Wesson, a Los Angeles-based career coach and consultant, believes the ethicality of this practice is determined by answering four questions:
Wesson admits that in our data-driven culture, companies routinely gather consumer data through a variety of methods, but she thinks it’s a more complex situation when dealing with employees. “Unlike safeguards for security, waste or fraud, which are often stated in the employee interview or new hire orientation, an employee may feel that tracking through a badge for purposes outside of these reasons may have too much of a ‘Big Brother’ feel,” Wesson explains.
And she doesn’t think companies can afford to drop the ball in this area. “A company would need to show not only why they are tracking to improve employee engagement, but also implement changes in accordance to the data gathered,” Wesson says. “If [they don’t], employee engagement would be at risk and so would employee loyalty.”
While companies are trying to improve the bottom line, employees want to know how monitoring will be beneficial to them. Stressing this WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) factor makes a big difference. John Reed, senior executive director for Robert Half Technology, says he believes that companies should detail the WIIFM component when communicating with employees about monitoring strategies. “They should explain to employees throughout the organization how the tracking of this data could improve their day-to-day work environment,” he says.
How much privacy should employees expect to have at work?
Unless they’re in the bathroom, employees shouldn’t have much of an expectation that they will be afforded privacy at work, and Dr. Christopher Bauer, ethics expert and the author of “Better Ethics Now: Avoid the Ethics Disaster You Never Saw Coming,” doesn’t consider tracking unethical. “Companies pay employees wages for being on the clock,” Reed explains, “and if it is not intrusive and they’re being honest, it’s not an ethical issue – although there may be unethical ways to use it.”
So, what would Bauer consider intrusive? “Employers have no right to listen in on personal phone calls, but they do have a right to know how long you’re on personal phone calls because you’re on their time, and they have a right to know how you’re spending it,” he says.
Employees may not embrace workplace monitoring, so Reed said he believes they should be given the choice of “opting out” whenever possible. Sometimes, companies might provide that option during the experimental phase, but once tracking becomes a standard, fully-implemented policy, employees typically don’t have a say in the matter.
This lack of choice can be problematic for several reasons. For example, voice monitoring reveals that high-performing teams tend to communicate more frequently. How might that affect someone who is a good worker but doesn’t talk a lot? And what about employees who give a certain performance because they know they’re being monitored? For example, once they find out that high-performing teams tend to communicate more often, they engage in lengthy, often unnecessary conversations only because their vocal activity is being recorded.
Also, while monitoring whether an employee takes the elevator or the steps can be used to encourage healthier practices, will the employees who don’t participate be penalized?
Employees may not take the stairs for a variety of reasons: They might have a knee injury or be trying to juggle a laptop, a briefcase and a cup of coffee.
Bauer says, “I’m not sure of the legalities of using behavioral analytics this way, but I think employees should always have the right to talk about what makes them uncomfortable and why.” However, he raises a good question: How is this practice significantly different from other types of monitoring, such as video surveillance or a supervisor watching employees?
So, do dissenting employees have any legal recourse? They might, according to Jonathan Westover, associate professor of organizational leadership in the Woodbury School of Business at Utah Valley University.
“While the courts tend to consistently side with organizations when it comes to questions of workplace privacy (meaning legally, employees have little right to an expectation of privacy), depending on the nature of the employment relationship (at will or contractual) and the organization’s own internal written policies and procedures, an employee may actually have a contractual right to privacy,” Westover explains.
That’s why transparency is crucial, according to Reed. “Problems could occur if employees didn’t feel they were fully informed about tracking practices,” he says, “which is why it’s imperative for leaders and security teams to be clear when communicating plans and policies.”
Even in situations where employees don’t have a legal basis to contest monitoring, Westover says a reasonable expectation of privacy is a basic human right and companies should care if workers find this practice unethical: “It is important to consider the impact such practices will have on the broader organizational culture, employee morale, employee creativity and innovation, and ultimately long-term, sustainable employee productivity.”
In other words, even if organizations believe they have the legal and ethical right to monitor their employees’ movements and actions, if those employees don’t agree, Westover says, “They can and will vote with their feet.”
Some employees may be more inclined than others to view tracking negatively. Reed says it can certainly be stressful to some employees to think “Big Brother” is continuously watching them. “To avoid problems with employee retention, which might result from this anxiety about being watched, Reed suggests that companies “who are implementing or do implement these kinds of practices should be upfront with current and potential employees.”
However, potential workers or new employees might be less likely to find this practice offensive. “For new employees, this is all they know,” Bauer says, “but for existing employees, if all of a sudden, they’re told that they’re going to be tracked, these workers may wonder if the company doesn’t trust them.”
Understandably, companies are seeking ways to be more competitive, efficient and profitable – and employees are usually the focus of those efforts. However, Bauer advises organizations to be cautious: “As technology allows for more employee tracking, this issue will come up again and again, so companies need to make sure that their policies are clear, enforceable and in line with the mandates of free employee expression.”
Terri Williams writes for a variety of clients including USA Today, Yahoo, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, Investopedia, and Robert Half. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Follow her on Twitter @Territoryone.
The formula for mass internet outrage is increasingly nebulous; we never know what will set off the next online frenzy. But Milo Yiannopoulos, senior editor at Breitbart, seems to have it all figured out. As a particularly vocal voice of the alt-right movement, he has actually carved out a niche market for himself by exploiting the volatile, at times fickle cycles of online outrage. He has developed an audience by routinely saying outrageous things in protest of a culture he considers to be too mired in political correctness. Not surprisingly, he is a proud supporter of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Yiannopoulos claims to detest what he perceives to be oversensitivity, while thriving on the recreational outrage culture he so often provokes. This provocation is precisely how he gets attention, and it’s simply not plausible that he actually believes some of the outrageous things he says. Yiannopoulos is a troll. That’s not meant to be an insult; it’s just the best term to describe what he does for a living, because in no universe could his actions be considered journalism. That is not to say Yiannopoulos’ asinine commentary does not have broader implications. The fact that he has amassed something of a cult following is evidence enough that his rhetoric is attractive to a specific segment of conservatives.
After the release of the new “Ghostbusters” film, Yiannopoulos wrote a review titled
“Teenage Boys with Tits: Here’s my problem with ‘Ghostbusters.’” Following the publication of Yiannopoulos’ dismal review, star Leslie Jones was bombarded with a large number of hateful tweets, many of which were racially charged. Yiannopoulos himself later joined in on the attacks against the actress. In one tweet, he described Jones as “barely literate.” Jones spent the day retweeting the most vitriolic messages, and later announced that she was leaving the platform due to her negative experience. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey invited Jones to direct message him about the situation. Subsequently, Yiannopoulos, along with many others involved in the harassment, were permanently banned from the platform. Twitter released a statement: “…no one deserves to be subjected to targeted abuse online, and our rules prohibit inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others … We know many people believe we have not done enough to curb this type of behavior on Twitter. We agree.” Vox published an extremely thorough play-by-play of the whole situation.
Yiannopoulos accused Twitter of banning him for political reasons. He claimed that Twitter allows jihadists to use the social media platform but silences conservatives. In one comment published via Brietbart, Yiannopoulos said, “With the cowardly suspension of my account, Twitter has confirmed itself as a safe space for Muslim terrorists and Black Lives Matter extremists, but a no-go zone for conservatives.” This remark was part of his broader strategy to paint liberals as tone deaf and irresponsible on the matter of global terrorism. It is a rhetorically effective strategy, but there are a number of specious assumptions baked into such claims. Yiannopoulos’ argument is a classic case of apples and oranges. Is it true that Twitter “allows” jihadists on their platform? One wonders if Islamic terrorists and other religious extremists should be presented with a box to check confirming their intentions before signing up for a service like Twitter. Would they check such a box? Probably not. So, it’s a distinct and challenging problem for Twitter to identify those ill-intentioned users. If anything, Yiannopoulos and his army of trolls make this problem decidedly burdensome, because Twitter not only must devote time and resources to removing jihadists, but it also has to deal with cases of harassment.
In February, Twitter released a statement that it had shut down 125,000 accounts related to the terrorist group ISIS. Twitter also stated that the company had significantly bulked up the team responsible for fighting such activity. According to the Obama administration, traffic related to terrorist accounts on Twitter has decreased 45 percent over the past two years. Still, new accounts are created frequently. It’s clear that this is an ongoing problem that needs constant attention. But why does that in turn have any implications whatsoever on the situation with Yiannopoulos? They are separate issues. In practical terms, this type of response is a non sequitur. It’s akin to a shoplifter who gets caught claiming to be treated unfairly on the basis that the cops are casually allowing murderers to go free, as if the shoplifter is the best source of information on that matter. It may be true that murders are occurring, but that does not mean the police are “allowing” it to happen. Cops are not omnipresent. They cannot stop all murders. Does that fact mean arresting the shoplifter is unfair treatment? Does it mean shoplifters should be given free rein to steal whatever they please while police officers devote all their resources to finding murderers? No reasonable person would make that claim. The same logic applies to Yiannopoulos’ complaint about Twitter. It might be true that Twitter should do more to stop jihadists from using its platform, but that argument is irrelevant to the matter at hand. The true horror of jihadism doesn’t make online harassment any less repugnant and disgraceful.
Let’s take seriously the claim that Twitter banning Yiannopoulos violates his freedom of speech. As advocates of free speech often note, the most extreme cases are what truly test our dedication to the First Amendment. For instance, even though most people hate doing so, we’ve begrudgingly tolerated the Westboro Baptist Church holding demonstrations near the funerals of fallen soldiers. Yes, there is near uniform agreement that the Westboro Baptist Church’s actions are consistently and utterly despicable, but so long as the protesters maintain a reasonable distance from the actual funeral so as not to interfere with the event, they are exercising their right to peaceably assemble, and the government cannot prohibit them from doing so. That would be a valid point in Milo’s case, if he were a U.S. citizen being prosecuted by the U.S. government. But he’s not. He was banned from a widely used social media platform for purportedly violating the site’s terms of service. There’s a major difference between the government’s response to the Westboro Baptist Church and Twitter’s response to Yiannopoulos. However, if you took Yiannopoulos’ claim at his word, you’d be compelled to believe this whole situation is an untenable, outrageous violation of human rights on par with, say, the imprisonment of Ai Weiwei in China for his vocal criticism of the government. But, of course, those two situations are not even in the same ballpark. They’re not even on the same planet.
Is there a time and place for trolls in this ever-changing digital landscape? Probably not, but that’s a topic for another time. The point here is that this is not a free speech issue. The United States has some of the most enduring, robust protections of free speech relative to any other industrialized nation in the world. Even under such protections – even given the most charitable version of events in Yiannopoulos’ favor – Twitter banning Yiannopoulos could not be construed as an infringement of free speech. Individuals do not have the right to exposure on a corporation’s platform; Twitter is not legally bound to serve as a host for Yiannopoulos’ hateful rhetoric. A world in which that were the case would be a very absurd world indeed. The fact that Yiannopoulos clearly feels entitled to such exposure is just further proof that his position is virtually untenable. It was untenable before the advent of the internet, and it’s untenable now. His banning is akin to a troll being banned from any typical online forum for whatever reason. The fact that Twitter is a large platform does not change the underlying principles at play.
There are a number of well-founded reasons why an organization like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), one that typically champions free speech, is not decrying the fact that Yiannopoulos was issued a lifetime ban from Twitter. Yiannopoulos would be quick to say it’s because the ACLU has a distinct liberal bias, and for the sake of brevity, let’s assume that’s true. Still, it is certainly safe to assume that this event’s historical significance is utterly trivial. Milo Yiannopoulos getting banned from Twitter is somewhere between Phil Robertson being suspended from the TV show “Duck Dynasty” for making homophobic comments and certain businesses severing relations with Paula Deen after her unfortunate use of a certain racial epithet. There are an astounding number instances of actual infringements on free speech in the world. To mention these instances in the same breath as the situation concerning Yiannopoulos would not only be specious, it would be laughable. Despite any perceived biases, it’s pertinent to make it clear to anyone reading this that the ACLU does more for the cause of free speech in a day than Yiannopoulos has done throughout his entire career as a “provocateur.”
Twitter’s ban on Yiannopoulos is simply not important. It’s not even on the ACLU’s radar, and even if it were, the ACLU wouldn’t care. What is important is that people understand the meaning of free speech as a set of nuanced ethical principles. A TV personality making asinine remarks and being publicly chided for it is not the same thing as an infringement of free speech. An online personality engaging in systematic harassment of some unsuspecting individual on a social media platform and consequently being banned from said platform does not constitute a violation of free speech.
If we are to think about the right to free speech as an assurance for one to freely engage in a marketplace of ideas, it makes sense to make a distinction between access to the marketplace itself and access to platforms readily available to the public on said market. It’s easy to conflate those two concepts. Conservative rabble-rousers seem to do it quite often. Let’s imagine that you’re in business as, say, a tire manufacturer in the United States. Now, it is certainly your right to start a business, should you have the means and wherewithal to do so. There are laws protecting your right to go through the startup process, and there are laws preventing others from engaging in coercive and violent acts to harm your business. Hypothetically, if someone were to set fire to your factory, or even attempt to spread libelous rumors about your business, you could take them to court. Granted, libel cases are difficult, but if you could prove that someone was intentionally spreading harmful lies about your business, and that your business suffered as a result, you’d likely have a good case. However, if there’s a rubber supplier that refuses to work with you for ambiguous reasons, there’s little legal recourse. Moreover, if a landowner refuses to sell you a space for a warehouse, assuming that individual is not discriminating against you based on your affiliation with a protected class (and it’s important to note here that political affiliation is generally not considered a protected class), again, you have no legal recourse. You cannot force someone do business with you, nor should you be allowed to do so.
Let’s try to think about the ban from Twitter’s perspective. If the company indeed banned Yiannopoulos for political reasons, said banning would be somewhat self-defeating; it would play right into the narrative that Yiannopoulos espouses, which is that he’s a downtrodden hero for the free-speech crowd. He’s playing that card already. The fact remains, though, that Yiannopoulos has not been silenced. In actuality, he’s been emboldened by this whole episode. Yiannopoulos actually publicly thanked Twitter for banning him, because he believes the whole situation has generated buzz about him. As questionable as some of Twitter’s actions have been in the past, we can at least assume the company was smart enough to know this publicity was inevitable. Yet, Twitter still decided to ban him. It logically follows that the social media giant thought it was a worthwhile decision, regardless of whether Yiannopoulos derived some glory from it. Why? Twitter is beholden to its shareholders and its user base — a young, predominantly liberal user base. This is not a crime, and it’s not unethical. It’s just a fact.
Let’s dispel another specious proposition: Twitter should not be heralded as a champion against online bullies. This ban likely wasn’t an action Twitter took out of empathy for Leslie Jones, although it is entirely possible Dorsey did empathize with her. After all, Jones was systematically and relentlessly harassed, essentially for doing her job. What she experienced was absurd. But whether or not the executives at Twitter felt empathy for Jones is likely to be incidental, at least as far as it influenced the company’s decision to take action. Corporations rarely deal in empathy as a currency, except when it affects their bottom line. Ironically, this is a point that traditional business conservatives tend to see as intuitive. It increasingly seems that the ban was in part a public relations move, but one deeply rooted in pragmatism. Twitter banned Yiannopoulos due to pressure from users, due to a need to combat the increased perception that it does not adequately handle harassment, and most importantly, due to the fact that Yiannopoulos clearly did violate the platform’s terms of service. In what universe can Twitter’s choice be construed as unethical? There is a distinction between a company taking an action for purely ideological reasons and a company taking actions for reasons primarily related to ensuring smooth operations and its continued survival. Yiannopoulos unwittingly gave Twitter an ideal pretext to make an example out of him, and the company made an executive decision to do so.
If that sounds cynical, consider a hypothetical scenario in which Twitter’s board, or whoever has influence at the company, does have an established liberal agenda, and that there’s a direct prerogative at the company to silence any voices of dissent, i.e. “conservatives.” If that were really true, why is it generally only the fringe, relatively extreme cases that Twitter acts upon? Bill O’Reilly doesn’t have any trouble from the administrators on Twitter, nor does Sean Hannity, Anne Coulter or Glenn Beck. Couldn’t it just be that most professional pundits, left or right, have the good sense not to engage in harassment and needlessly inflammatory behavior on Twitter? Could it be that lesser known fringe commentators and other trolls are simply more prone to violate Twitter’s terms of service? Some statistics might put this into perspective. Generally, the more education a person has, the more likely they are to hold predominantly liberal positions on a wide number of issues. This positive ascription has a somewhat impolite inverse: The largely homogeneous intersection of voters that identifies with Trump, and in turn the alt-right movement as a whole, tends to be less educated. It’s an uncomfortable truth with which we must reckon.
That folks of the alt-right persuasion are typically less educated is not a fact to be celebrated by “enlightened” liberals or arrogantly held over the heads of Trump supporters. It’s data that ought to be bemoaned by anyone who values civil discourse, specifically in the online realm where anonymity continues to reign supreme. People who find themselves roped in by alt-right rhetoric are being exploited. They have not been trained to recognize fallacious reasoning; Yiannopoulos is just one of the unscrupulous talking heads speaking to them on their level. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise when his tactics strategically appeal to such a demographic. He’s doing what a businessman does: exploiting a niche market. Unfortunately, as long as there is an ambient level of ignorance in the world, there is strong a market for trolls such as Yiannopoulos. The real world operates by market forces. Yiannopoulos is beholden to his demographic, and Twitter is beholden to its own. The situation is really that simple. This is merely a case in which the interests of two demographics were at odds with one another. It’s essentially free speech in action, on a macro level.
David Stockdale is a freelance writer from the Chicagoland area. His political columns and book reviews have been featured in AND Magazine. His fictional work has appeared in Electric Rather, The Commonline Journal, Midwest Literary Magazine and Go Read Your Lunch. Two of his essays are featured in A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics. David can be reached at email@example.com, and his URL is http://davidstockdale.tumblr.com/.
In June 2016, the result of the U.K.’s referendum on membership of the European Union brings down the Prime Minister, cripples Parliament and divides a nation in acrimonious back-biting.
Why did the ‘Brexit’ vote cause such surprise and disruption, and can you be sure this turmoil won’t happen in the upcoming presidential election?
On the face of it, there was nothing particularly unusual about the Brexit campaigns. Political leaders battled on every point, attempting to build an enticing vision of the future for their respective Remain and Leave camps. Fact, fiction, spin and confusion reigned. So what? We’ve been living with spin – creative presentation of the facts – since the dawn of democracy. One of the pithiest observations on political ethics, made by Ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes around 400 BCE, is that “under every stone lurks a politician.” Fast forward to modern times, when Paul Ryan was caught taking ’factual shortcuts’ in his speech at last year’s Republication National Convention, drawing attention to spin. Historically, we have been skeptical of politicians and their promises. Now, we face a paradigm shift with serious consequences.
Online sentiment contradicts traditional polling
Why has spin spun out of control in the last decade? The problem is rooted in our digital environment, and it’s here to stay. One of the key features of ‘Brexit’ was that traditional debates indicated the Remain campaign would win, if only narrowly. All the predictions and all the expectations were based on feedback from face-to-face human interaction. A leading Leave campaigner actually conceded defeat during the results, only to retract when the final tally turned out to be in his favor. Nobody took into account the strong Leave sentiment online, and winners and losers alike were caught by surprise. The classic ”Downfall” internet meme, a film clip that is regularly subtitled by YouTube users to reflect current events with comedic effect, was re-subtitled, purportedly showing the Leave leaders’ shock at actually winning (advisory: explicit content). It’s ironic that not only was the result of the referendum skewed by social media, but that one of the most comprehensive explanations of the facts post-vote was presented as a publicly generated YouTube classic. What are the new factors that have caused this shift away from easily measurable public opinion?
Consensus, shallow learning and mind change characterize society
First, we’ve gone beyond indulgently accepting the lies told by our favored candidate or trusted news outlet. Although plenty of evidence shows that we have always been too trusting of politicians (Riggio, 2011, and Ropiek, 2015), sweeping statements were previously tempered by arguments of equal prominence, enabling some semblance of sensible decision making. The rapid rise of social media as a key communication channel, and the human tendency to cluster and form consensus with like-minded people, has distorted the political message. Voters now find themselves enclosed within a digital boundary where the spin comes from friends, family and groups based upon shared interests, often in the form of catchy, uncorroborated memes and opinionated posts. Once, savvy voters treated political rhetoric with the skepticism it warrants and looked at both sides of the coin.
Now, campaign rhetoric is skewed by closed communities giving credence to statements that match their beliefs. When this effect is magnified and reinforced by sharing on social channels, the online consensus diverges rapidly from the consensus that exists in the real world. This is in line with the classic example where a closed group of non-mathematicians can come to the conclusion that 2+2=5, despite the fact it’s patently incorrect. It is a flawed consensus reality.
Second, people don’t listen to experts. We tend to engage in ‘shallow learning’ in our absorption of online knowledge. In his book, “The Dumbest Generation,” Mark Bauerlein points out that the message will always be affected by the medium and suggests that the internet has produced a generation of “well-informed and media-hyperactive ignoramuses.” We skim through the headlines, learning a little about a lot; we don’t check the detail. Fact takes a back seat, and rhetoric comes to the forefront in this environment. You only have to follow comments on a climate change discussion or a vaccine debate to see polarization and strong opinion with very little basis in fact. People don’t search for the truth: They take what is spoon-fed to them.
One of the classic promises of the Leave campaign was that 350 million pounds a week would be saved and spent instead on the provision of health care. As early as April, two months before the vote, Sir Andrew Dilnot, Chair of the UK Statistics Authority made it very clear this was not true. Despite widespread coverage of Sir Andrew’s statement, a leading politician and Leave campaigner dismissed the criticism, saying “Britain has had enough of experts.” The false claim was widely shared on traditional and social media until the day of the referendum – and even painted on the side of the campaign bus. However, within an hour of the result being announced, the Leave camp’s Nigel Farage told ITV news that this pledge was “a mistake.” The experts were right all along.
Finally, there is the very real possibility that our digital habits are actually changing the way our brains are wired. British neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield suggests that “Mind Change” could be an unprecedented development of the 21st Century. “Today’s screen technologies create environments that could alter how we process information, the degree to which we take risks, how we socialise and empathise with others and even, how we view our own identity,” Greenfield’s website says. The need for positive affirmation in social media interactions backfired on those in the Remain campaign, whose predominantly negative messages were mocked by the Leavers as “Project Fear.”
The vision painted by the Leaverstherefore, made more headway online. In a talk last year about the “Plastic Mind,” Baroness Greenfield warned that “it’s critical to challenge the mind to understand and query rather than to simply accept an internet’s worth of facts.” Social media interactions remove most of the cues we take for granted in face-to-face communication. Emoticons, images and live video posts attempt to remedy this; however, words alone account for just 10 percent of a message. If the other 90 percent – the subtle body language – isn’t getting through, how can any politician be sure that the feedback from a live audience is accurately reflected in an online group? How can politicians be comfortable with the thought that their wildest rhetoric is being taken as gospel truth?
We need a code of campaign ethics
Campaigning is a political fight outside the normal arena of government. As it is neither process nor policy, it is not subject to the principles or the enforcement of active political ethics. In the U.K., the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner enforces the Code of Conduct. (For example, “Members shall never undertake any action which would cause significant damage to the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons as a whole, or of its members generally.”) In the United States, the House Ethics Committee holds sway. However, neither body addresses the ethics of campaigning.
Given the challenges of educating the electorate in the digital age, political campaigners should be subject to the same ethical constraints and sanctions as elected representatives. Bruce Weinstein, the Ethics Guy, proposed a 10-point Campaign Code of Ethics for candidates back in 2008. To me, the key elements of his proposal are these: Tell the truth, don’t make promises you can’t keep, and listen – to all the channels of communication. It’s time to adopt Weinstein’s Code of Ethics. In the eleventh hour of the presidential race, the United States has the chance to take an ethical stand.
Kate Baucherel is a published author, speaker, trainer and coach, and co-founded community software company Ambix. She has two young children, and lives in the north of England. Find out more at www.katebaucherel.com, or follow @katebaucherel on Twitter.
When you die, the executor of your estate begins the task of managing and distributing your assets. In the past, financial accounts, real estate and various chattels such as cars, furniture, personal property and other tangible items were affected. The advent of the information age, however, finds individuals storing heritable information online in the form of accounts and personal data.
Personal and sentimental items such as email accounts, photographs, videos and messages comprise much of this online data. However, some online records, including online banking and bill paying accounts, music and video subscription services and online trading or stock accounts with companies such as Optionshouse, may have financial value. To complicate matters, each category of online items has a set of rules and regulations governing inheritance, privacy and distribution issues. The lack of consistency across platforms’ policies has made life increasingly difficult for grieving family members attempting to delete, retrieve or redistribute online property.
Online items of a sentimental nature have gotten the lion’s share of press attention. In January 2016, for example, Technobuffalo reported that Apple refused to give a widow her dead husband’s passwords, even after she provided the serial numbers for the iPad in question. Apple maintained that she needed a court order for them to release the password, and the company stuck to its guns until the widow reached out to CBC’s “Go Public.” At that point, she got the passwords and an apology from Apple.
In some cases, access to accounts of deceased family members could prove essential to healing or understanding a decedent’s actions. In 2011, Ricky and Diane Rash, the parents of a boy who committed suicide, tried to access their son’s Facebook account to more clearly understand why he’d taken his life. Even after they obtained a court order, Facebook fought their attempts to recover materials from his account. Ultimately, it took the parents one year of legal conflict to win only limited access. This experience prompted them to push for legislation that would allow parents and legal guardians to access their children’s online accounts, a project which culminated in the Virginia General Assembly’s unanimous adoption of House Bill 1477, the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act.
It could be partially due to situations such as the Rash family’s that in February 2015, Facebook announced that users could designate legacy contacts. A legacy contact is an individual who would have access to your account after your death to pin a post, accept friend requests and update your profile. This person wouldn’t have access to your private posts, but he or she would be able to manage your profile after your death. It’s a step forward, but family members and heirs still can’t retrieve photos or videos stored in your account if they aren’t public content.
Twitter has a more lenient policy. Its support center clarifies that you may have a deceased user’s account removed by providing some basic information about the decedent, a copy of your identification and a copy of a death certificate. It will also consider removing images of deceased loved ones across the platform at the request of the immediate family. However, Twitter restricts access to the deceased’s account, and it may deny any application for media removal, although it claims to consider these requests.
Be warned if you store data in the cloud. iCloud’s Terms and Conditions state that you agree your account is “non-transferable.” Non-transferable, in this case, means that Apple terminates rights to your Apple ID and content in your account after your death. While heirs may not retrieve content, they can terminate the account and have the content deleted if they have a copy of the death certificate. However, personal photos or videos may be lost forever if they are stored in the cloud rather than on a computer or accessory drive.
So, Facebook, Twitter and iCloud may keep your sentimental items, but what about your music and movies? Apple says heirs have no right to your music or video collections after you die. According to the company, you haven’t bought a license to the tangible music or film; you’ve only bought a license to listen or watch, and that license dissolves upon your death. Apple states this philosophy in Section B of its service agreement: “iTunes is the provider of the Service, which permits you to purchase or rent a license for digital content (“iTunes Products”) for end user use only under the terms and conditions set forth in this Agreement.”
More easily navigated for heirs are online brokerage and securities accounts. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or FINRA, does not specify its rules for online accounts because many banking and investment accounts have an online component in conjunction with traditional investment relationships. Wills, trusts and estate planning can help heirs retrieve funds kept in online accounts. Online accounts not revealed in estate planning documents are escheated, or placed in an unclaimed property fund. You must do your research to determine the location and amount of these funds and complete the forms and documentation necessary to retrieve them.
Consumers of online services, whether that be social media, cloud services, banking or online purchasing, need to direct the fate of personal accounts well before they die. Concerned individuals should leave passwords and other information with trusted family members or a family attorney and set up accounts to allow family access after death.
Obviously, there’s much regulation needed for online industries to resolve after-death issues in a fair, balanced and humane way. The responsibilities and rights of heirs cannot go ignored, even if there is a valid need to protect the privacy of the deceased.
With young adults most likely to have online accounts and die intestate, they are at the highest risk for privacy violations of their online assets. In this case, the contractual law outlined in the service provider’s terms and conditions will govern what is to be done with the account, even if the user has used online asset protection services such as Knotify Me and digi.me. Property laws would prevail if the information is treated as property, resulting in heirs getting access to what could be sensitive or damaging information.
The Uniform Law Commission, a nonprofit, bi-partisan commission with the intent of providing states with legislation to clarify critical areas of state statutory law, created the Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act that would allow fiduciaries to manage a decedent’s digital assets, including online accounts. Currently, it has been enacted in 18 states and introduced in 11 more. However, this act does not govern accounts created or held outside of the United States.
The online community needs a global definition of digital assets so these assets may be properly categorized as governed by contractual or property laws. Only then can treatment of digital property be addressed in cases of death both with and without a will. For circumstances involving music and video downloads, further action is needed to protect consumers’ rights to gift or bestow digital collections to legally appointed heirs, as would be done with similar tangible items.
Online service providers should distribute accounts and digital materials of deceased owners according to their wishes. A standard, enforceable method of designating heirs, fiduciaries or account managers must be developed. Digital legacy clearinghouse The Digital Beyond and similar services offer a valuable shift toward adopting this process. Online organizations must embrace a standard practice that honors privacy for decedents while providing appropriate asset distribution to furnish both protection and fair asset handling to consumers. A universal set of definitions and formulae is the only answer to this predicament, short of the onerous task of waiting for case law to accumulate to force the issue with online giants. Until we have such a set of definitions, individuals should consider how to distribute their digital legacies and know the steps they must take to see their wishes carried out.
Nikki B. Williams is a bestselling author based in Houston, TX. She writes about fact and fiction and the realms between, and her nonfiction work appears in both online and print publications around the world. Follow her on Twitter @williamsbnikki or at www.gottabeewriting.com.